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Implications for the identity status paradigm

Identity Status Paradigm, with reference to empirical work.

James Marcia is a clinical and developmental psychologist best known for his research and writings on psychological development, especially on the psychosocial development and identity development of adolescents. His main theory is based on the work of the neo-Freudian developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, who suggested that the central conflict in the “fidelity” stage of psychosocial development, occurring during adolescence, is the one between identity and role confusion. Marcia expanded on Erikson’s theory, noting that this stage actually consists neither of identity confusion nor of identity resolution. Rather, it represents the extent to which the adolescent explores his/her identity in a number of different life domains, the most important of which are ideology and occupation. The main notion of Marcia’s theory is that the person’s sense of identity is determined largely by the choices and commitments made regarding certain personal and social traits (Marcia, 1966; 1973).

For Marcia (1973), an adolescent’s sense of identity consists of two separate parts: crisis and commitment. A crisis is a time of upheaval, when the adolescent’s values and choices and reassessed. He/she then comes out of the crisis by making a commitment to a specific role or value. Through the use of a semi-structured interview for exploring identity development, Marcia identified four possible outcomes, or identity statuses. Although these statuses represent different stages through which the adolescent may pass, they are not stages and they should not be viewed in a sequential order.

The identity foreclosure status is when the individual makes a commitment without properly exploring the alternative choices. Usually this occurs when adolescents adopt their parents’ views and ideas without questioning them. The identity diffusion status is when the individual becomes so overwhelmed by the process of identity development that he/she “freezes” and neither explores identity roles nor makes any commitments. This is the simplest and more immature course of action and adolescents who follow it may become socially isolated. The identity moratorium status is when the individual is in the middle of a crisis, exploring the situation and the choices available, but he/she does not make any commitments, remaining for a time within this moratorium. Finally, the identity achievement status is the case where the individual has gone through an identity crisis and made a commitment to an identity role. Adolescents with this identity status are capable of independent thought, warm interpersonal relations and are more resistant to peer pressure (Pervin & John, 1997).

In essence, the identity status paradigm states that an ego identity can be one of the four statuses mentioned above. Overall, one’s sense of identity, whether in adolescence or later life, is shaped by the choices and commitments made with regard to several personal and social traits (Marcia, 1966). As noted, the formation of an individual’s identity takes place in a large variety of domains, which include politics, occupation, religion, intimate relationships, friendships, gender roles etc. (Marcia, 1973). The person’s domain and cultural specificity also play an important part, a fact highlighted by Marcia himself as well as the extensive volume of studies conducted on his theory after it was initially proposed. A review by Cote and Levine (2002) states that by 1988 more than a hundred empirical studies had been generated on the identity status paradigm, and new studies exploring Marcia’s theory are still being conducted. Yet more studies have explored social concepts based on the identity status theory. The aspect of Marcia’s theory of interest to the present paper are the implications of the identity status paradigm for domain and cultural specificity.

Hardy and Kisling (2006), among others, note that identity status theory seems to be flexibly adapted to different cultures. The identity statuses proposed by Marcia appear to enjoy a good deal of cross-cultural validation and, furthermore, cultural differences seem to affect the identity statuses. Cote (1996) investigates the culture-identity link in his study on social perspectives on identity formation. For Cote, the way identity is approach depends on the characteristics of a culture. In pre-modern cultures, identity is ascribed, in effect inherited as a social status from one’s parents or social background. In early-modern societies it is achieved, in other words accomplished through one’s own effort. Finally, in late-modern societies it is managed, as the person actively and/or reactively attempts to adjust into a society of strangers and gain their approval by creating the right impressions and producing the right behaviours.

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While Erikson finalised his theory of psychosocial development in the early 1950ies and Marcia produced his own in the 1960ies, the Western societies examined now by European and North American researchers are becoming late-modern, prefigurative and other-oriented. The changes in society have in turn changed the way in which the whole issue of identity is approached. In line with social changes, identity diffusion is increasingly being preferred as the status that is used to resolve conflicts and achieve identity formation. At the same time, identity achievement as proposed by Marcia seems to be declining. Identity achievement was based on the solution of conflicts through commitment, and the late-modern society is characterised by a difficulty in maintaining commitments. The behaviours it promotes are other-directedness, increase emphasis on impressions, and —especially- image consumption as people are driven to discover their identity via the mass consumption of commercial goods and participation in youth cultures or peer cultures. This can lead some to rejecting their culture of primary socialisation and instead take part in this mass image consumption where traditional forms of identity achievement are greatly altered (Cote, 1996).

There is ample evidence that culture plays an important part in the process of identity formation. Carter, Yeh and Mazzula (2008) conducted a study on the cultural values and racial identity statuses of Latino students. The research showed that cultural identity values indeed predicted various personal traits and beliefs, such as the person’s view on human nature, social relationships and harmony with nature. The participants’ views on social relations reflected a mixture of Latino and Eurocentric cultural values. Another study (Megreya & Ahmed, 2011) investigated identity statuses in Middle Eastern countries, including the examination of cross-cultural differences between Egyptian and Kuwaiti students. The researchers were concerned by the fact that Marcia’s original theory did not pay much attention to cultural context and attempted to expand it. With regard to the four different statuses they found that males showed more foreclosure than females, while Egyptians showed more achievement and less foreclosure and diffusion than Kuwaitis. These differences, even among roughly similar Middle Eastern cultures seem to suggest that identity formation is greatly influenced by the macro- as well as the micro- cultural contexts.

This influence can be highlighted if the identity formation process of a western culture is compared with that of a non-western one. Cheng (2004) compared identity development in Taiwan with identity development in the United States. The two cultures have striking social differences, since Taiwan is a collectivist culture whereas the United States is the epitome of an individualistic culture. Findings confirmed these differences and explored their significant effect on identity formation in the two cultures. Gender also played a major part and acted as an explanatory variable that better accounts for cultural complexity.

Perhaps predictably, Taiwanese culture placed greater emphasis in interpersonal than in ideological issues in identity formation. On the other hand, Americans scored higher in identity achievement than Taiwanese in the ideological domain, but this is accounted for than the lower scores of Taiwanese females. In fact, males and females experienced both ideological and interpersonal issues differently due to differing cultural expectations. American females were more advanced in identity development while Taiwanese females were markedly less advanced and also felt less authentic in their identities due to major compromises in their autonomy. American males were particularly vulnerable to passive self-images featured in identity diffusion. These self-images only affected Taiwanese males in the ideological domain. Overall, in contrast to the values of western cultures, the Taiwanese students were influenced by filial piety, which is evidently considered a core cultural value for them. The researcher notes these differences as proof that cultural factors are central in identity formation and even recommends that future research can result in beneficial social policies (Cheng, 2004).

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Cultural differences in identity formation are not restricted to ethnically foreign cultures. An extremely interesting study by Leigh et al. (1998) investigates the cultural identity paradigms of the hearing impaired. The researchers note that it is culture that usually gives people their sense of identity, and deaf people have had a sense of community for a long time, affecting their identity formation among other things. The study concludes that people who are deaf or hard of hearing with parents without hearing impairments develop differently from people who are deaf or hard of hearing with deaf parents. Factors such as the pressures a deaf child encounters in a hearing environment or the ways in which a child can take part in the deaf culture of his/her parents can apparently shape the process of identity development, resulting into the endorsement of different types of identity statuses. Although the researchers can only speculate on the reasons for this, there is little doubt that this study provides yet another indication about the influence of culture on identity formation.

Despite the limitations of the original model, recent research, such as the studies presented above, has branched out to include other aspects than those originally studies by Marcia’s theory. To make the measure sensitive to minority groups, ethnicity has been studied, while life-style concerns have been taken into account to note the differences between European and North American populations. A study on the ego identity and ethnic identity of ethnic minority and majority college students revealed that students with an achieved ego identity status had a more positive sense of ethnic identity than students with a diffused identity status. Furthermore, for the ethnic minority students, a stronger sense of ethnic identity was associated with more positive psychosocial outcomes (St. Louis & Liem, 2005).

Such modifications have definitely increased and expanded the usefulness and validity of the identity status theory. However, the theory’s focus on the strict four-category model seems to have created some obstacles in establishing a model of identity formation that fully applies to all cultures. The main validity problem with the identity status paradigm lies in Erikson’s original idea (which remains more or less intact in Marcia’s theory) that identity has to be “achieved” in order for the aims of the adolescence stage to be achieved and the individual to creatively resolve the conflicts associated with that particular stage of life (Cote & Levine, 2002).

In cultural contexts outside “Western” culture, individuals often resolve the conflicts of adolescence and move on in very different ways than the process proposed by Erikson and Marcia. The relations and adaptive strategies used in many societies to approach identity-related issues would be described as identity foreclosure according to the identity status paradigm and deemed inadequate for personal growth, yet, for the majority of people in these cultures, they represent the “normal” way to transcend this stage and achieve personal growth (Marcia, 1993). Perhaps the most shocking finding is that even in Western cultures only between 20% and 30% of the population resolve the adolescence stage in the way Erikson puts forward as “correct”, via identity achievement (Van Hoof, 1999). It has already been mentioned above that, as Western societies undergo major changes, people follow very different paths to identity formation and very different values (Cote, 1996).

These findings suggest that the framework of the four-category model is somewhat flawed or, at the very least, rigid. There are other ways apart from “identity achievement” as described by Marcia to achieve a sense of identity and, most importantly, to resolve the conflicts of adolescence and transcend this stage of psychosocial development. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the identity status paradigm has become obsolete. The theory is still useful and valuable after the intervening decades, and can prove adaptable to other contexts, especially if emphasis is placed on the social and cognitive processes underpinning identity statuses (Berzonsky & Adams, 1999). Perhaps, as proposed by Cote and Levine (2002) there is a degree of identity achievement within the other three statuses as well. In order for this to be identified and investigated, however, further research is needed. The identity status theory needs to be expanded even further, especially in the culturally appropriate domains.

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